761.00/8–2052: Telegram

No. 519
The Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Department of State

top secret

324. Kentel eyes only Secretary (distribution S/S only). Following are reflections on this morning’s announcements re convening of party congress1 which I did not think it was wise to send by other channel. Must ask Dept to regard them as submitted only for personal knowledge and reflection of top persons in Dept and Govt. Would regard any leakage these comments on my part as extremely unfortunate.

Cannot stress too strongly importance of what may lie behind these developments, particularly coupling of convening of party congress with measures looking toward abolition of Politburo.

There is no question but that delay in holding party congress was for long delicate and painful issue within high party circles; in particular Zhdanov’s reproach to Tito, in Cominform letter, for failing to hold party congress was unquestionably meant to cut both ways and may well have been intimately connected with circumstances of Zhdanov’s demise.2 Fact that it has now proved possible [Page 1039] to convene congress means that something must have given in last few months in Sov internal situation. Coupling of convening of congress with announcement of abolition of Politburo and estab Presidium of Central Comite would tend to confirm that whatever it was that “gave” had something to do with Stalin’s personal position and/or relations among top members party.

We have not slightest evidence of any recent changes in composition of existing Politburo or any substantial alteration in mutual rels of leading members. Molotov’s appearance as leader of Sov del meeting Chi,3 plus Malenkov’s designation to render Secretary’s report at coming congress (which Stalin rendered at last one) would seem to indicate both these key figures are on hand, functioning normally and in good standing. There has been no sign, as yet, of any purge or major displacement among top circles of party. This seems to me to indicate that issue has been primarily one not of rivalries within top group but rather of Stalin’s relationship to remainder of ruling group, altho this judgment is highly tentative and should be taken only with greatest caution.

Three hypotheses would seem to fit what is evidenced by these developments:

Congress may be conceived as occasion for some sort of nominal retirement on Stalin’s part, but one which would leave unchanged his position of dominant influence and ascendancy in party. I have never believed Stalin would voluntarily accept risk of indicating his wishes as to identity his real successor during his own lifetime, since this would represent virtual splitting of supreme power with great personal danger to himself. It is unthinkable, furthermore, that he should cease to be a member of highest party body during his lifetime, unless he were to be forced out by successful hostile group. Thus, if Stalin becomes member of new Presidium but does not take chairmanship, it may be that move, while not affecting his position of real supremacy, is conceived as means of emphasizing his retirement from position of personal operational responsibility and increasing collective responsibility of highest party body in determination of policy and conduct of affairs. This has been presaged by official language of recent months [Page 1040] portraying “party and govt” as directing hand of contemporary affairs and Stalin rather as revered teacher and source of inspiration. Collection responsibility of Politburo members may have rendered it difficult in absence of some institutional change to emphasize this shift of status any more than it has already been emphasized, since Stalin’s formal position has simply been that of one member of collectively organized body.
On other hand, these developments are so far-reaching and amazing we must not exclude possibility, inconceivable as it may sound, that this is the real turning point in Stalin’s position within party, that he is person who has been opposing convening of congress all along, knowing he could not in present conditions command majority, and that present announcement reflects final and carefully prepared victory in Central Comite over Stalin by tightly knit group of subordinated, embracing Malenkov, Beriya and Molotov together, who found it easier to get rid of Politburo as institution than to face difficulty of removing Stalin and his minor favorites from it, and have therefore, forced thru creation of new body, which will have to be elected a priori, thus providing possibility for reshuffling leading group without facing unpleasantness of making removals from Politburo. This is, in fact, hypothesis that best meets test of application to developments announced today; but it is so fantastic in its implications, and so out of accord with more basic and long term evidence, that I find it extremely hard to accept it and urge greatest caution and reservation in judgment on this point.
Third possibility is that presence of [in] Politburo of several persons either aging or ill-favored (such as Voroshilov, Shvernik, Andreyev) has become real problem, since honorable retirement from that body has never been regarded as a conceivable procedure; and that to avoid necessity of removing these people, which would cause fuss and present problems their future status, Stalin himself has decided to abolish body entirely and create new one to which problem children could simply fail to be elected. However, this hypothesis fails to satisfy me in several respects. In particular, I doubt Stalin would have taken step so drastic as abolition Politburo without giving most careful, and probably decisive, consideration to question his personal position in coming years, which he cannot fail to recognize as one of recreating connection with day-to-day control of affairs.

There is not evidence that any of this has any relation to foreign affairs at the moment. Mere fact that Chi del, obviously placing heavy demands upon attention Politburo members, was permitted come to Moscow at this time, would indicate foreign affairs has not been vital issue in connection with developments announced today. [Page 1041] In any case, would warn against any tendencies to see in these events hopeful signs from standpoint of US–Sov relations and East-West conflict. We must assume that today’s announcements represent latter phases rather than beginning of whatever internal crisis may have led to them and that whoever is in driver’s seat in this country today has been in that seat long enough to direct careful and inevitable time consuming preparations for delicate and important operations in internal polit field presaged in today’s announcements. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the hand which has guided Sov pol in recent weeks is one animated by anything other than deepest malevolence toward US.

  1. On Aug. 20, Stalin announced that a recent plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had decided to convene the Nineteenth Party Congress on Oct. 5.
  2. Andrey Andreyevich Zhdanov, member of the Politburo and Organizational Secretary of the CPSU, who died in Moscow on Aug. 31, 1948. Regarding his death, see telegram 1868 in Foreign Relations, 1948, vol. iv, p. 916. Zhdanov’s “Cominform letter” appears to be a reference to his letter of Apr. 16, 1948, to Marshal Tito, one of the exchanges in the rupture between the CPSU and the Yugoslav Communist Party.
  3. A Chinese governmental and military delegation headed by Prime Minister Chou En-lai visited Moscow, Aug. 17–Sept. 22. Negotiations between the Chinese Delegation and Soviet officials began on Aug. 20 when it was announced that discussions would proceed on the general question of Soviet-Chinese relations with particular reference to the problems of economy, defense, and international commitments. On Sept. 15, an official communiqué was issued announcing that the Soviet Union had agreed to return the Chinese Changchun railway but that Soviet troops would remain in Port Arthur until the Soviet Union and China signed a peace treaty with Japan. The communiqué also stated that “important political and economic questions were discussed.”